“I’ve never had malice toward the two individuals that pulled the trigger. I still don’t to this day,” said Dave Westlake, coordinator for the Colchester Regional Emergency Management Organization. “I want to ask them how they missed — because I can’t hide behind telephone poles.”
As “EMO Dave” reminded investigators with the Mass Casualty Commission, he has a bigger build than the murderer police were chasing. That wry sense of humour got him through the difficult first months after he realized the five bullets police officers fired outside the Onslow Belmont fire hall had been meant for him.
Having arrived to help set up a Comfort Centre in the hall for families displaced by the previous night’s deadly shootings and arson, Westlake figured he was just a guy “at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
At 10:17 Sunday morning, April 19, Westlake was wearing a reflective yellow vest with an orange “X” while talking to the officer inside an RCMP car parked in front of the fire hall. Westlake said he looked up to see an Altima parked in the middle of the two-lane road and “a long gun” emerge from a door before hearing a sound “like a sonic boom.”
“I did not hear ‘put your hands up’…I didn’t duck behind a car,” said Westlake. “I heard (imitating the screeching sound of car tires), then ‘Get down’. And then shots rang. It was just like that.”
Westlake said he turned and ran through the front door of the fire hall.
“‘EMO Dave’ came running into the room saying ‘Shots fired! Get down!’“ recalled deputy Onslow fire chief Darrell Currie. “The hall was full of tables and chairs…so we just started flipping tables and chairs over as fast as we could and took cover. While we were hiding, somebody knocked on the door in the southeast corner of the building. Nobody yelled, nobody said ‘Police’ or opened the door — it was just someone banging and pulling on it. That was probably the worst moment of my life, ever. As far as we knew, the actual shooter was here, and a locked door wasn’t going to stop him.”
(The knock on the door may have come from Cst. Dave Melanson or Cst. Terry Brown who were outside checking the area.)
Deputy Fire Chief Currie had been following RCMP Twitter on his phone since early that morning, so he knew there had been murders in Portapique.
Shortly after they heard the shots outside, a Tweet at 10:21am stated police were looking for an armed man driving a replica police vehicle, last seen in Debert, 5 kilometres west of the Onslow fire hall.
For the next 57 minutes they hunkered down behind tables and chairs: Currie, Fire Chief Greg Muise, and Richard Ellison, a man from Portapique who had arrived “distraught,” as he waited and eventually received word his younger son had been murdered the previous night.
The three believed the person who fired the shots could still be in the area. They heard the front door open, and “EMO Dave” tell an unidentified male voice, “Everyone’s OK. All four of us.”
But it wasn’t until Currie read an RCMP Tweet reporting the replica police car had been spotted 15 kilometres away in Brookfield that the men felt safe enough to emerge. They discovered bullet holes had damaged the fire truck and the exterior wall of the building. Currie said from “bits and pieces” Westlake gathered and passed along, “we did know before we left that it was the RCMP who opened fire on us.”
Luckily for Westlake, all five bullets fired by detectives Terry Brown and Dave Melanson missed him.
“According to Cst. Brown, he yelled at Westlake to show his hands. Both officers say Westlake ducked behind the RCMP vehicle,” states the report on the Onslow Fire Hall prepared for the MCC.
Constables Brown and Melanson were in hot pursuit of a murderer who had eluded them just half an hour earlier at the Fisher home in Glenholme before moving on to kill two women on Plains Road in nearby Debert.
The detectives knew the killer was driving a replica RCMP vehicle, was heavily armed, and wearing a reflective vest. That information had been broadcast, based on a recent sighting by Cst. Rodney Peterson and a description given to the Mounties by Lisa Banfield, the spouse of the gunman.
Two efforts by Cst. Melanson to radio their position in Onslow failed to transmit or record. The reason is still being investigated.
“It was a split-second decision,” Brown told the MCC interviewer about the choice to fire his weapon four times. “I believed I was engaging the threat. He was in the right area, wearing the right thing, he was in the right car.”
The investigation by the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) into the case of mistaken identity found the two police officers were “justified” in their actions, and no criminal charges were laid. Melanson also fired one shot.
Westlake doesn’t dispute the conclusion, but he believes the surveillance cameras outside the fire jall back up his statements that he never ducked and he never heard the officers yell “Hands Up.”
“I try not to do this because the two emotions that will eat you up is ‘what if’ and anger. I can’t go down that road. Or I won’t be functional,” said Westlake. In his 30 years dealing with hazardous materials, floods, and searching for missing children, Westlake understands the need to maintain a positive working relationship with the police.
“I don’t want this to ever happen to anybody again. I don’t know what deity had their hand on my shoulder that day.”
Not only did Westlake survive an attempt on his life by police, but he had also actually watched the killer pass the fire Hall 10 minutes earlier. Westlake had made a mental note that it was unusual to see a white police car with a push bar mounted on the front (there was only one other in the province) but at the time, he had been told almost nothing about the shootings and was unaware the suspect was driving a police car.
It was because Westlake knew so little about what had happened in Portapique or what was happening that morning that he didn’t suspect the bullets flying toward him came from the perpetrator.
He said he “knew or sensed” the bullets came from police. That observation was confirmed later by Cst. Dave Gagnon, who came out of his cruiser at gunpoint, hands in the air, begging his colleagues to check the call number of his marked car.
“Gagnon. You guys are pointing your guns at me?” he said.
Later, a Ford pickup carrying a RCMP Emergency Response Team stopped on the road after noticing Gagnon’s marked patrol car outside the fire hall; he moved the patrol car, but did not think to tell the men huddling inside the fire hall. Ironically, when they couldn’t see the car anymore, they believed they no longer had police protection.
Westlake said he knows that he, Gagnon, Brown, and Melanson “are all impacted” by what happened. He was pleased Melanson reached out to him for an informal chat. He would like to meet with Gagnon and Brown.
But Westlake feels less positive about a visit paid 11 months after the shooting by RCMP Supt. Chris Leather and another top manager. “It took them longer to climb the stairs than it did to sit in my office and talk to me,” he recalled. “It didn’t feel sincere.”
Months before that visit, Westlake had worked with the RCMP to make sure the force reimbursed the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade for the $42,000 it cost to repair significant damage to the pumper truck, the electronic sign, and one side of the fire hall where bullets and shrapnel were visible reminders of the close call experienced by civilians inside and out.
Mental health struggles
“It’s a day I’d like to forget but I can’t,” is how Greg Muise described his feelings almost two years later. “Since this happened, I struggle with it every day…I’m closer to my wife now because I felt that day they weren’t going to see me anymore. I don’t sleep well; I still have nightmares.”
Both Muise, a volunteer firefighter for 40 years, and Currie, a volunteer for 25 years, said they have witnessed their fair share of terrible events. But they have both learned that experiencing fear and trauma is not the same as witnessing it.
After an initial Critical Incident Debriefing session offered through the Fire Department, it was a month before Muise and Currie received mental health counselling sessions over the phone. Both men felt those sessions weren’t adequate and have had to fight for additional services.
Eleven months after the shooting at the Fire Hall, RCMP Victim Services came forward to offer psychological counselling. Both men said the counselling sessions are proving to be very helpful.
Currie is still off work following a diagnosis of PTSD. His struggles to get treatment were complicated by the fact he didn’t have a family doctor who could sign the forms required to get counselling, which is paid through the insurance Colchester County carries on first responders.
“The Walk-in doctor wouldn’t sign the forms. The Pictou County doctor wouldn’t sign the forms because I don’t live in Pictou County,” recalled Currie. “Eventually the Deputy Minister of Health offered to sign my forms after I wrote complaining I couldn’t get a family doctor. (I got one the next day!) But before that, Victim Services called the Truro Hospital and an ER doctor there heard the story about one of the guys who got shot up at the fire hall can’t get psychological counselling because he doesn’t have a family doctor. And she met me at a local school, and she signed the insurance papers on the hood of my car.”
Currie has stepped back from some of his duties at the Onslow-Belmont Fire Brigade; Greg Muise retired from his job with Tim Horton’s but continues as Fire Chief.
Both men are grateful the RCMP quickly cut the $42,000 cheque to cover damage to the hall and its equipment. But they don’t feel the risk to their lives and the community has been adequately addressed in any meaningful way.
“I feel we’re left out because the RCMP never apologized to us,” said Muise. He mentioned a visit to the fire hall three weeks after the shootup, when Supt. Chris Leather and District Colchester RCMP Commander Al Carroll toured and inquired how everyone was doing.
The official investigation by SIRT into the two Bible Hill detectives opening fire also left a bitter taste in Muise’s mouth.
“They could have taken a life that day,” said Muise. “I got nothing against the RCMP, but they made a mistake — a big mistake. I think they should be reprimanded for that, and from what they put out in SIRT, that doesn’t seem to have happened.”
According to Currie, insult was added to injury when staff with the Mass Casualty Commission waited until February 2022 to speak with the volunteer firefighters.
“I am obviously shocked the RCMP would open fire on the fire hall for any reason,” said Currrie. “But I am second most shocked that anybody can issue a foundational document about what happened here and never speak to us. That’s just appalling, and the last thing from being trauma-informed.”
Westlake was asked by the MCC what he thinks could have been done differently. “I don’t understand why an Alert didn’t go out,” he answered. “It wasn’t going to save anybody that Saturday night. But Sunday it could have… They have the ability to interrupt and do emergency communication on the radio, on TV, on cellphones, whatever. They have capability. And they chose not to do it…Twitter was probably an easier thing to put out. But the bottom line is, really? Twitter?”
Westlake noted that hindsight is “always 20/20” and in his view “it was a perfect storm. You had a psychopath who was just ready to blow, who had financial means, who had a lot of triggers. The question was going to be, when? Unfortunately he lived in Portapique and Colchester County”.